Plantswoman, Plant Collector, Garden Creator
In 1875 Frederick Willmott purchased the 33-acre Warley Place estate near Brentwood, and for his daughter Ellen’s 21st birthday her father gave her permission to create an alpine garden and the funds to do so. This was created by the Yorkshire firm of James Backhouse and instead of rocks on the surface, an alpine gorge with a filmy-fern cave was created to satisfy the needs of the range of ferns she intended to grow.
A 1904 plan of Warley Place, which by then had a further 30 acres south of the Warley Rd., depicts a Pleasaunce, Cardinal’s Walk, Rose Bank, Bowling Green, Alpine Rock Garden, Carnation House, Alpine Nursery and Crocus Lawn as well as numerous plant-houses and (John Evelyn’s) Spanish Chestnuts. For some genera, such as Hedera, Epimedium and Iris, she acquired almost every variety that cash or persuasion could obtain. William Stearn wrote that at Warley Place she “grew some one hundred thousand different kinds of plants supremely well.” Although Miss Willmott had a large team of gardeners (at one time as many as 104) under talented head-gardeners, she was very much an active hands-on gardener. The Linnean Society (of whom she was the first women member) credited her with one of the most comprehensive private collections of hardy trees and shrubs in the British Isles.
Willmott was one of only two women (the other being Gertrude Jekyll) among the first sixty recipients of the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour on its inauguration in 1897. In the same year (only three years after becoming a member of the RHS) Miss Willmott was elected to the RHS Narcissus Committee. Between 1900 and 1906 she gained an enormous number of Awards of Merit for daffodils including ‘Eleanor Berkeley’, ‘Warley Magna’, ‘Great Warley’, and ‘Betty Berkeley’. For four years between 1904-1907 she was awarded the Gold Medal of the RHS for various groups of fine and rare daffodils. Even in her seventies, her outstanding plant knowledge was recognised by the RHS when she was elected to the Floral Committee (Group B) and the Lily Committee.
The long list of plants named after Miss Willmott and her garden reflects what an extra-ordinarily talented plants-women she was. Many of those were named by Miss Willmott herself and exhibited by her at RHS shows in London; several were given the RHS Award of Merit.
Roses were another group of plants in which Ellen Willmott had considerable experience. Roses named after her include Rosa blanda var. willmottiae, R. chinensis var. indica ‘Miss Willmott’, R. Ellen Willmott, R. x warleyensis, R. willmottiae and R. willmottiana. There were species of wild rose collections at her Well Mead garden (on the opposite side of the road to Warley Place and her French garden, Tresserve in Aix-les-Bains.
In 1906 Miss Willmott also purchased a house and site at Boccanegra, in Ventimiglia, Italy, and created a new garden there.
In 1910-1914 she wrote and published The Genus Rosa in two volumes (illustrated by Alfred Parsons), and was later awarded the National Rose Society’s highest award, the Dean Hole Medal. Warley Garden in Spring and Summer had been published earlier (1909), illustrated by her own photographs.
Miss Willmott was an active member and supporter of the Essex Field Club. It is fitting that her garden (the house itself was demolished in 1939) is now leased to the Essex Wildlife Trust who balance the wildlife and historic interest of the garden.
Taken from: Twigs Way, Ed., Rooted in Essex (Essex Garden Trust, 2006).
See also: Audrey le Lievre, Miss Willmott of Warley Place (Faber & Faber, 1980).